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So far the News International scandal, which is only just unravelling, has focused almost exclusively on ‘phone-hacking’ and the invasion of privacy by Murdoch’s print media. Although this has considerable celebrity and ‘human interest’ value, it entirely misses the main game.
Murdock’s newspaper business in Britain, though mostly profitable, is small beer financially when compared to his television and entertainment interests. Murdoch long ago ceased to be a traditional press baron. He is no Citizen Kane. Unlike newspapers, which anyone can print, television broadcasting is a highly regulated and highly politicised business, because in every country the state is eager to retain control of the main opinion-forming media, and because taxes and broadcast rights generate enormous revenues. TV broadcasting is in the gift of the political class, and even a minor ‘regulatory difficulty’ can cost a media company billions, or shut it out of the market completely.
Therefore any media giant keen to be involved in broadcast in any country must have considerable influence over the political elite that ultimately takes the decision to grant or withhold licences and concessions.
This is why, for example, Murdoch still owns London’s Times newspaper. It has never made a profit and will never make a profit. Every year it loses around ?40 million, which is an expensive hobby. But The Times is read by everyone in Britain ‘whose opinion matters’. If you think it is useful to talk to the Britain’s political elite every morning, then ?40 million is a small price to pay compared to the billions you could lose by a failure to influence the right people. Murdoch’s newspapers provide the influence that keeps the political class in check, which in turn creates a permissive environment to further his broadcast interests.
In every broadcast industry in the world, TV and entertainment conglomerates own not-very-profitable newspapers and radio interests because they provide a parallel source of influence. That is the real relationship between commercial TV and the printed press across all nations where broadcasting is not dominated by a state monopoly. Today my papers do a favour for you by keeping a bad story out or saying something nice about you, tomorrow I may call on you to a favour for me.
Berlusconi is an example of a media mogul whose parallel apparatus of influence became so powerful that he could afford to dispense with the political elite altogether, buy his own political party, Forza Italia, and then buy the Italian state itself, tear up the constitution, ignore the rule of law and make personal laws to perpetuate his own interests.
Murdoch’s strategy has been less flamboyant but just as insidious. At the heart of News International’s current problems is not the undue influence its newspapers have exerted, but the fact that it took matters one step further – into the realm of mafia-style blackmail and extortion. The story yet to emerge is that News International, like the Mafia, operates a vast information-gathering network collecting compromising information which provides Murdoch with the ‘dirt’ to undermine, intimidate, threaten, hound, and if necessary destroy, any politician, public official or investigative journalist who darers to get in his way. It is the same system that allowed Edgar J. Hoover to remain head of the FBI for 52 years, even though president after president, and large sections of America’s political class, wanted rid of him.
Murdoch’s mafia system also explains News International’s symbiotic relationship with almost every department of the higher command of the Metropolitan Police. It gives the Murdoch’s empire access to the contents of the National Police Computer and a dozen other intelligence databases that keep records of every person who has ever had a brush with the police, and every address the police have ever attended. It is an invaluable resource if you are in the business of making people ‘offers they cannot refuse’ because there is no politician or public official who at one time or other has not done something he or she would prefer not to be publicised in the press — even if that might be a trivial matter.
To what extent did Murdoch intimidate and manipulate the British political elite? What’s significant is that, in order to move against him, there had to be an unprecedented all-party agreement — so that News International would be blocked from targeting individual politicians. That is the extent.
News International is a criminal organization.
Susil Gupta can be reached at: susilgupta[at]btinternet.com